REVIEW: “Theatrical Genesis” at Augustana – 24 hrs to tell a story

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By Not The Real George Elliot

Augie Theatre’s first ever 24-hour plays hit the stage on Saturday night, February 27th, at the culmination of the Claire Donaldson New Play Festival. In the spirit of the weekend, Saturday’s show – titled Theatrical Genesis – showcased original works from current Augie students. The catch? The works were all less than a day old.

The idea of a 24-hour play is pretty straightforward: you start with nothing, you get twenty four hours, good luck. Students were divided into teams, each team was given a few prompts (“Prop: deviled eggs” or “Character: a horrible poet”), then each team was given until 7:30pm Saturday to write, rehearse, produce, and perform an original play. The end result, the playbill promises, is “a process that will have you awestruck, laughing, and crying.” I never happened to cry, but the night definitely delivered on the first two.

The concept, especially as Augie presents it, lends itself to comedy. The required props and characters (“Prop: two ears of comically large corn”), as well as the required lines of dialogue added in around the 12-hour mark, all seemed to skew toward laughs. Each of the four plays employed puns, physical comedy, wacky character traits, and tongue-in-cheek nods to the audience. The process was clearly a lot of stress and a lot of fun, and that fun carried over for the audience. All four shows possessed the seat-of-your-pants quality of a good night of improv comedy, and the characters’ frequent self-deprecation worked well for an audience of mainly Augustana community members. Everyone likes to see their friend act the fool.

The more effective shows of the night, however, were the ones who reached beyond the easy punchlines. You can only push the same pun so far, and like a good night of improv comedy, the jokes have to stay fresh. Even knowing the twenty-four hour time limit, I sometimes found myself wishing for more engaging plots, snappier dialogue, a reason to care about the people telling the jokes. Some cast dynamics were off, with actors talking over each other, not connecting at critical moments, or enduring long pauses that stretched out the silence between the laughs.

Some of this can be attributed to limited rehearsals, but sometimes it felt that each actor had a different idea of where the scene was going. There was plenty of great acting onstage, and everyone had a great sense of physicality and comedic timing, but when they were each doing their own thing I sometimes lost the heart of the scene. As a result, only some of the moments in the evening felt fully cohesive, but the ones that did – scenes that owned the silence, or embraced the reckless nature of the format, or committed fully to a wild idea – were some of the most rewarding of the night.

An excellent example is the final show of the night, The Completely Unnecessary Trial of the Piñata, in which the titular piñata (that team’s provided prop, voiced by Erik Friestad) begins his narration as the pole comes smashing into his side. This moment was clear, defined, and packed a surprise factor with a level of polish that brought down the house. We then relived the sentient piñata’s life, all ten hours of it, witnessing plenty of cornball jokes, candy puns, and the ever-useful ax-crazy boss. These elements were present in all the other shows as well, but here they followed a main character who was likable, engaging, even sympathetic. His friendship with a factory worker (Derek Somnis) is more than simple plot designation: the two share an honest moment in a silent warehouse, in the only scene of the night that made me go “aww.”

These moments in Piñata shone, not because the team had better jokes or more insane character archetypes. The moments shone because they were part of a unified story, a thing that I actively cared about, and the team’s commitment reminds us that, even if we only have a day to tell it, we still need to care earnestly about the story we tell.

I hope, fervently so, that Augie continues Theatrical Genesis in the years to come. The night was a riot, well worth attending, not only for the impromptu performances but for the chance to simply witness the birth of original ideas onstage. The Augustana Theatre community possesses an astonishing commitment to theatre in all of its weird little forms, not just traditional cut-and-dry mainstage shows. The students’ willingness to sacrifice a weekend, endure a little sleep deprivation, and do something crazy speaks to a company with a hell of a lot of passion.

I respect that passion. I enjoyed the shows. And I’m excited to see what’s next.

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REVIEW: New Musical “Salem” Previewed at Augustana

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Jarvis Pennington / Follow @JarviPenni

Let’s be frank: Theatre in South Dakota is very hit or miss. It just comes with having a developing arts scene.

In an environment like that, the prospect of an original musical can be a cause for some apprehension.

Fortunately, in many ways Salem is on to something. Are there problems? Absolutely, but this Sioux Falls original musical with music and lyrics by Luke Tatge and book by Bob Wendland has a lot of potential to work with going forward.

Excerpts from the show were staged by workshop director Jayna Fitzsimmons as part of Augustana University’s Claire Donaldson New Play Festival on Friday night. The presentation seemed to consist of much of the show’s first act and included 14 numbers performed by a collection of Augustana students and alumni, community members and area high schoolers.

Salem, set in the late 1600s, depicts the Salem witch trials of colonial Massachusetts. Wendland and Tatge present a community that is deeply rooted in both Christianity and one another’s affairs.

The music is largely reminiscent of church hymns, which makes sense for this pious group of characters. It’s disappointing, however, not to see some more modern influence come into the songs. The numbers were often beautiful in their own right, but lacked any hook that would make musical theatre artists clamor to put this show on stage.

Meanwhile, the book currently hurts for its simplicity. Rather than tying together the trials and trespasses of characters, we’re hopping from one character’s ordeal to the next.

The action takes off when Hephzibah (played by Sara Crosby) is absent for a Sunday service. This prompts the Minister (Wendland) and Judge (Chase Kramer) to call for her execution.

While seeing the intolerance and paranoia of the Salem community build to a frenzy where missing church is punishable by death might make sense as the witch hunt gets rolling, it felt like a strained starting point.

But despite the kinks and hurdles Salem will face as development continues, it’s fabulous to see this musical being created in South Dakota. The story board can use some doctoring, but the dialogue itself pries into the conflict of finding yourself at odds with someone else’s interpretation of the Bible. The songs need to be paired down, but at times the melodies capture the tragedy of being unjustly ostracized.

At its heart, the persecution Salem seems to be prying at and encouraging us to ponder harkens Arthur Miller’s comparisons to the Red Scare in The Crucible. More importantly, Wendland and Tatge are challenging South Dakota to ask whether there might be a group of people today who “pay a price for just existing in the world.”

As for the staging, Fitzsimmons – who explained in her curtain speech that the group had only a handful of rehearsals to assemble the preview – focused on introducing the script and score. Actors carried scripts and blocking was simple.

On the whole, as the presentation wasn’t just a sing-through or concert reading, some of the performers needed a bit more character and emotion to move us through the story. Crosby, for example, embodied the elderly Hephzibah head-to-toe each time she was on stage, while many principles simply sang their songs and left.

Many of the songs felt at least 60 seconds too long, but it was hard to tell if that was due to the relaxed performances or indicated need for trimming music. We will see how that changes as the production becomes more fully realized.

That said, Chase Kramer, Martha Stai, Ian Curtis and Molly Wilson delivered especially brilliant performances both in vocal chops and solid acting values. Wendland, for those who have never seen him sing at a Bare Bodkins show in the summer, also has a gorgeous tone. And as a whole, the ensemble had a strong presence and sound.

Wendland and Tatge are certainly onto something with Salem, and they are apt caretakers to give its message a forum in Sioux Falls. As they develop the work further, hopefully the story will find its enticing flow and the music will find a way to captivate our attention, because if this preview was any indicator, these men have something worth saying.

Editor’s note:  We hesitated to publish this because we failed that realize Salem was only in the staged-reading phase of development.  We made sure this article was being helpful to the creators by providing feedback the creators could use – or not.  Additionally, we are using this as an opportunity to spark discussion about the play development process.  For readers unfamiliar with developing a new play, here is a good resource.  – Jesse Jensen, Editor-in-Chief

METRO: ONCE upon an Irish Pub; Pair a Pavilion Show with Bogtrotters

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By Le Bender – Follow @LeBenderJr – Image: Bogtrotters, downtown Sioux Falls

An aspiring Irish singer/songwriter known simply as “Guy” pours out a forlorn love song in a Dublin bar. With a seemingly broken heart, he prepares to abandon his dream of being a musician and resign himself to repairing vacuum cleaners alongside his father.

But before he can leave the bar, a young Czech woman who has been listening approaches. A gifted pianist, “Girl” offers to compensate “Guy” with a song if he will agree to repair her broken down Hoover. A mesmerizing chemistry between “Girl” and “Guy” begins to blossom as they start making music together.

Adapted from the 2007 film of the same name, ONCE debuted on Broadway in 2012 and won 8 Tony Awards® including Best Musical. Now on its second North American Tour, the Washington Pavilion welcomes the musically gifted ensemble cast to Mary V. Sommervold Hall for three performances this weekend: Saturday Feb 27 at 2 p.m. & 7 p.m, and Sunday Feb 28 at 2 p.m.

You can read a review of the current tour here.

In a gesture uncharacteristic of traditional theatre, ONCE boldly breaks the fourth wall, drawing you ever closer to the performance by inviting the audience onstage to order a drink from the bar that serves as the backdrop for this tale.

After the show you might want to find your own little Irish pub for a post-show drink. Or maybe you need of a pre-show bite. Whichever it may be, Bogtrotters Irish Pub, Grub & Tap is a worthwhile downtown destination.

Screen Shot 2016-02-26 at 9.39.19 AMNo matter if you’re in a party of two or twelve, there are plenty of seating arrangements available. The interior of the pub is quite spacious, but the dark stained wood bar, tables, and high backed booths, along with copper colored ceiling tiles and turmeric-hued accent wall, create an inviting and cozy pub atmosphere.

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Image: tripadvisor.com

Behind the bar is a nice selection of draught beer. Of the sixteen taps, only two were from macro breweries. Does that scare you? Ask for some suggestions and your server is likely to offer you a sample. That’s so nice of them, right? The atmosphere at Bogtrotters is definitely relaxed.

Most of the draught beers are either from craft breweries or across the pond. I mean, what Irish bar doesn’t have the St. James’s Gate trio of Guinness, Harp and Smithwick’s? They even have an Irish pear cider listed on tap.

If you want your beer bottled, the list is long. They’ve got all the styles you’d see lining the shelves of a specialty beer store: lagers, pilsners, stouts, porters, pale ales, cream ales, brown ales, red ales, scotch ales, IPAs, ESBs, wheat beers, bocks, and Belgian styles. They even have farmhouse ales, lambics and sours.

If you’re want some grub, the menu contains pub classics like fish ‘n’ chips, shepherd’s pie (beef & lamb), and a Rueben sandwich. We went with the fish ‘n’ chips and a couple of appetizers. The two pieces of cod were sizeable enough to share, dipped in tempura batter and fried to a golden brown deliciousness. The chips/fries were uninspired. I’m not sure if we got the end of the bag (our fries were stubby short and a tad under seasoned), but serving them on some newspaper along with a bottle of malt vinegar would have helped.

The highlight of our food was most definitely the appetizers, which seem to fit the pub ‘n’ grub mentality of Bogtrotters just fine. You’re there to kick back with your mates and mind your Pints and Quarts after all. Did I mention the relaxed atmosphere?

The Rueben egg rolls were a piping hot mix of chopped corned beef, sauerkraut, and Swiss cheese in a crispy wonton wrapper, served with a thousand island dip that was a nice blend of sweet and tangy. Being a guy of Czech heritage myself, I think understand why “Girl” was hanging around that Dublin pub. It’s all about the sauerkraut.

We also had the bourbon molasses “fairy” wings. They were crispy and sticky and sweet (but not too sweet). I could have easily finished a second order. Next time I’ll try the shepherd’s pie, as it came highly recommended by the wait staff.

I can’t wrap this up without getting back to the music. A blend of classic alt rock from the 70s – 90s played overhead, the likes of the Stones to The Velvet Underground to The Cranberries. The music was just loud enough to be enjoyed, without being too loud that shouting was necessary to carry on a conversation. Bogtrottors has the occasional live act, but I suggest checking their Facebook page for who’s playing and when.

Whether you’re headed out this weekend to catch ONCE at the Pavilion, or just looking for a good Irish pub in downtown Sioux Falls for an upcoming St. Patrick’s Day celebration, drop by Bogtrotters for drinks and some decent pub grub.

Bogtrotters Irish Pub, Grub & Tap

201 E 11th St
605.275.0051
Hours:
Mon-Fri 3pm-2am
Sat-Sun 1pm-2am
Patio Seating: Yes
Vegetarian/Vegan: No
Entrée Range: Appetizers $5-$10, Entrees $10-$13
Parking: Street

Miles from Me: A South Dakota Artist’s Transition & HB 1008

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Image: freestockphotos.com

Do you remember Sandra Bullock in the movie, Gravity, floating around alone in the deep, dark, endless cold of space?  Those of us in the theater were right there with her because of the film technology we have today.  Now close your eyes and be Sandra.  You’ve already lost Clooney, but you have a state-of-the-art, impenetrable spacesuit and helmet with its own oxygen supply.  You are sure that, if you just stay strong, and stay in your suit, help will come.  You know you only have to wait.  Suddenly a piece of your damaged space station comes hurtling at you. You move, but not far enough and not fast enough.  You hear a rip and feel a change inside your cocoon.  As you look down you see a trail of vapor, moving fast, hissing across the vastness of space.  It’s your oxygen supply, your protection from an unlivable environment.  This is what so many in the LGBT+ community felt when House Bill 1008 was introduced.  They had begun to feel like they were accepted as they were in the community as a whole.  Then, as violently as shrapnel hitting a space suit, that feeling was ripped away.  Maybe you know someone in this situation, maybe you don’t, or think you don’t.  Either way, those feelings need to be shared from a personal experience.  This is Austin’s story. – Julie Sauer, Editor-at-large 

austinprofileMy name is Austin and I am transgender.  Austin is my name, it is not just a preference.  I grew up in tiny Blue Earth, MN, where, despite the world’s gradual progress in letting people be who they are, there was no LGBT+  group reaching out to those of us at school who identified with the acronym.  Amazingly enough, in a town where people know each other’s business, I rarely heard any slurs or nasty comments tossed at the non-traditional population.  I had surrounded myself with good friends and was insulated by their kindness.  But, despite that comfort bubble, I was cautious about revealing too much.  It was high school, after all, not the place to draw attention to your differences.

After graduation I was off to Mitchell, SD to major in Theatre and Digital/Web Design at Dakota Wesleyan University.  DWU is a religious institution in a conservative state, but it turned out to be the place where I met lots of people who gave me the room to breathe and explore who I was.

At this point I was getting comfortable enough to think about sharing.  While I never felt directly threatened, I had read many articles about others like me and had been shocked and disappointed to see the cutthroat comments that were written.  Of course I was well versed in what many churches and politicians had to say on the subject.  All of this made me hesitate to move forward.  I would be leaving myself completely vulnerable and unprotected as, once again, there was no LGBT+ community to lean on.

But, what I needed was to be me, whoever that was, so I stepped off the cliff into the unknown and came out as gay.  I was obviously anxious about the response I would get.  Coming out is risky business; anything could happen.  Also, people don’t realize that the “coming out” stage doesn’t end, at least not for a long time.  There are always people from the past that haven’t heard yet, and the explanation and emotional upheaval happen each and every time.  I was so relieved to discover immediate acceptance from the DWU theatre community.  They welcomed my decision to be who I was with open arms.

During summer breaks I worked in Sioux Falls, staying with family members.  It was definitely a “big city” compared to Blue Earth and Mitchell, so I was happy to spend much of my free time with a close friend from Minnesota who was also living there.  On the whole, we found Sioux Falls to be a fairly accepting place.  One thing that really stood out as a beacon of hope was gay pride display set up at Zandbroz that summer.  Seeing it gave me an uplifting feeling of support, and told me that the day would come that fear and rejection of the LGBT+ community would be a thing of the past.

I was still pondering exactly who I was, and my friend served as a sounding board.  Though she came from a conservative background, she was very open-minded.  I was able to bounce thoughts and ideas off of her, knowing that she would listen openly and give me constructive feedback.  We became very close friends that summer and I found myself comfortable enough to share thoughts about my sexuality, though I was not yet exploring terms of gender.  I can’t imagine anyone being a better source of support than she was and I will always be grateful.

At that time I don’t believe that any of my friends or family suspected that I would soon be facing a gender identity dilemma.  I was viewed as a “tomboy”, which isn’t uncommon.  Everyone saw this as acceptable behavior for a girl, and didn’t question it.  Of course, though I still had identity questions, I never let on.

One of the highlights of my time in Sioux Falls was the invitation to serve as stage manager for the Sioux Empire Community Theatre’s spring production of Spamalot.  By then I knew I was trans, but had been too overwhelmed to tell people at school.  It was just too much to envision dealing with multiple teachers and administration in a virtual “startover”, so I could comfortably be myself; a guy.  So, I took the spring semester off and used the break to begin using my name, Austin, as well as masculine pronouns with a few select people.  However, I had not told everyone, not even the Spamalot team.

By the time rehearsals started I had been Austin, with a small group, for about eight months.  I had been seeing a great gender therapist who was supporting me on my transition journey and encouraging me to be me.  One night, after all the cast had left and I was locking up, I had the urge to tell the director.  I had worked with him on a few shows and he’d always had my back.  I trusted him.  It was time.

Taking a breath to steady myself, I told him what I’d been going through.  He listened, and I shared my new name with him.  A tremendous sense of relief came over me.  I hadn’t realized how much anxiety I was holding as I worked up to this moment.  In case you haven’t figured this out, coming out as transgender is a massive emotional ordeal.  How do you explain to someone close that, in a way, you’re completely different than they’ve ever known you to be?  How do you make them understand that, though your gender has changed, your feelings for others, your creative energy, your opinions and life goals, your HUMANITY has not.  Though you are different, you are also the same.  You are trusting them with this huge part of yourself and hoping they will respect it.

I have heard about relationships being ruined by the inability to comprehend that a loved one is transgender.  I really do understand that the revelation can be a shock and can take some time and thought to get used to.  I get that.  It’s a huge change and some people feel like they’ve lost someone as they gain this new individual.  But, though I can empathize with those feelings, I don’t believe that the gender of someone that you love and care for should be that vital in your relationship. Those feelings just can’t compare to the daily pain a transgender person, still “in the closet”, must endure.  The anxiety, the self doubt and the fear are all constant companions and we are living day to day as our self-esteems absorb blow after blow.  This is not a “choice” anyone makes for themselves.  Who would choose to live a life in hiding?  The only choice we have is whether or not we live as our authentic selves.  When we take that step into the light, we hope that our families will continue to love us unconditionally, even in uncharted territory.

Within a short time after I shared my story with the Spamalot director, I was Austin to everyone in the production.  People were very understanding and quick to adapt.  There were a few slip-ups, which happen, I understand that.  I was thankful, though, that there was little attention brought to the slips; whoever it was just corrected themselves and moved on.  I was overjoyed to hear my name said aloud as Austin by the Spamalot team, and I made sure they knew how much I appreciated it.

The Spam team’s reaction bolstered my courage to talk with my immediate family and close friends.  They came to see me work and to see the show, saw my name as Austin in the playbill, and heard my team members and the cast address me by name.  I think that this helped them to feel like it was okay, that other people were accepting of it too.

I’ve been truly fortunate to have a family that has stuck with me through this, and I don’t feel that I have lost friendships as a result of my transition.  The sad thing is that most every trans person has to worry about losing people in their life because of their quest to be themselves.  If we love someone, shouldn’t we try to keep their spirit afloat during difficult times, not sink them?  What kind of person would abandon their own child because of this?  It does happen, it’s wrong, and it causes extreme heartache for the transitioning person.

I have considered myself very fortunate to be welcomed as I have by so many great people.  Though this is a conservative state, people’s overall reactions have given me hope and an idealistic view of what things can be like when we choose kindness and empathy.  I’ve found safe places here.

These thoughts came crashing to Earth when I read about House Bill 1008.  I am filled with fear for the youth of South Dakota affected by this.  I had come to believe that our state had made strides toward acceptance of the LGBT+ community, but this bill feels like a kick in the stomach.  The students targeted by it endure a great deal of stress every day, whether they are “out” or not.  They’re struggling with their identities, with acceptance, with bullies, and with thoughts about how their revelation might affect their loved ones.  It’s a lot for a young person to handle.  I may not have been exploring my gender identity in high school, but if this much hate and stigma had been surrounding me at that age, I would have been terrified.  I would have felt unsafe in an institution meant to educate and protect me.  Some of these students can’t feel safe in their own homes if they out themselves as trans; why push to make another place unwelcoming for them?  Now South Dakota, instead of helping its youth become the best it can be, has made it acceptable to bully those that identify as LGBT+.

Trans kids need support.  They deserve protection, not targeting.  They need to know that they are cared for.  We have lost so many that felt unloved, unaccepted.  And when I say that I mean they felt driven to take their own lives to stop the pain.  This is just my story and I am hoping that, by sharing it, some empathy will arise and the ostracism will cease.  The futures of so many are at stake.

– Austin Schoenfelder

Editors:  Julie Sauer & Jesse Jensen

REVIEW: “I Pee In the Shower” Post Secret Delivers Laughs & Tears!

 

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By Julie Sauer @JulieLSauer – Image courtesy of postsecret.com

“I pee in the shower.”

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Image courtesy of postsecret.com

That’s the most frequently received comment by the Post Secret project.  And it was only a small part of the package delivered last night at the Belbas Theater in the Washington Pavilion.  The rest was a program of humor and poignancy that left me emotionally drained, but satisfied as I drove home, unable to get some of the content out of my head.

Post Secret is the brainchild of Frank Warren of Germantown, Maryland.  He began with the idea of a community art project for his city.  The premise was that local people would write a secret on one side of a postcard, then mail it to him anonymously.  Frank would curate the cards and create an exhibit for display.  Sounds simple, right?  But the project snowballed.  Soon hundreds of cards were coming in, then thousands, as word spread across the nation.

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Image courtesy of postsecret.com

Some of these secrets were funny, some awe-inspiring, and others absolutely heartbreaking.  People would even send cards replying to others whose secrets had been posted to the website, offering support.  Overall, the contributors were finding a sense of release and freedom by sharing their secrets with the world.

Frank began writing books including images of some of the most poignant secrets.  Often the cards included personal drawings or cut-out letters.  The books sold like hotcakes.  One might think that the reason they became so popular is because we all have a bit of voyeur in our psyche.  Isn’t that why we watch so many reality shows? But this is about so much more.  It’s about freeing yourself from pain that has weighed you down for years.  It’s about giving others the joy of laughter without outing yourself.  It’s about knowing that there are others out there just like you.  It brings hope, relief, and a bonding across time and space that might never have occurred otherwise.  It’s about that one person who would have swallowed a handful of pills if he hadn’t seen the cards from so many others who had been there before him.  

Here is a secret that is haunting me yet today: “I save voicemails from my family so that, when they die, I can still listen to their voice.  I listen to my grandmother sing me Happy Birthday every year, just like she did when she was alive.”  

One of the funniest secrets: “I like to secretly drop feminine hygiene products into strange men’s carts at the grocery store.”  That one is truly inspired!  Game on!

The most shocking of all: “Everyone that knew me before 9-11 believes I’m dead.”  Let that one sink in.  There are literally thousands of these in the books and on the website.

I am so thankful that I got to see the live presentation.  It consisted of three actors who delivered secrets from memory, as the cards were displayed on the jumbo screen behind them.  They didn’t just read, they truly portrayed the emotions found in the words.  Linking it all together was a narration of the Post Secret story and a musical backdrop provided by a live guitarist.  The resulting presentation was an emotional masterpiece; simple, yet powerful.  One moment the crowd was silent, the next it was erupting with laughter.  Then the mood would shift and scattered sobs could be heard throughout the house.

During intermission we were invited to submit our own secrets, some of which were read aloud on stage.  Yes, I submitted a hum-dinger. I guess it wasn’t good enough as it wasn’t used.  Here’s the one that brought the actress who read it to tears:  “I gave my son my mental illness.  He committed suicide three years ago.”

I want to take a moment to talk about the venue, the Belbas Theater.  I hear lots of people say, “I don’t know where that is.”  Well, find it!  Just go down the hall between the science store and the staircase and keep walking.  You will run right into it!  So many worthwhile projects take place in the Belbas.  It was perfect for a show like Post Secret. With just 300 seats, it has a much different vibe than the huge, grand Sommervold Hall.  Not only do you not have to monkey-climb over twenty people to get to your seat, but you can comfortably view the production from any seat in the house.  The seats themselves are cozy, with a gold upholstery that contrasts beautifully with the wine colored curtains.  Also available for private rental, it is lovely enough for a formal event, while neutral enough to allow the stage elements to shine through.  I could envision a breathtaking renaissance style wedding taking place there.  

Overall, the feeling last night was that of a comfortable group therapy session, where everyone lets their guard down.  That setting was the perfect foundation for the show’s theme: “We are all part of something bigger and we are all part of it together.”

You can catch Post Secret, The Show again in Milwaukee on February 25 & 26

Coming up at the Washington Pavilion:

Friday, 2/26:  Peter Gros from Animal Planet brings his animals to Sommervold Hall

Sat./Sun, 2/27-28:  Broadway’s ONCE!

Friday, 3/4:  The Price is Right, Live!

 

METRO: Pair SECT’s Yonkers with The Diner, Sioux Falls

 

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Le Bender – follow @LBenderJr – Photo:  The Diner downtown Sioux Falls from www.phillipsavenuediner.com

A night out at the theatre it a great way to feed your brain.  But your stomach needs sating as well. So where in downtown should you eat before heading to the historic Orpheum for Sioux Empire Community Theatre’s latest production of Neil Simon’s Lost in Yonkers

To put you in the right frame of mind, and ensure a growling stomach won’t embarrass you among your fellow theatergoers, I humbly suggest a visit to the Phillips Avenue Diner.

The Scene

Simon’s Yonkers is set in an apartment above KURNITZ’S KANDY STORE in 1942 Yonkers, New York.  Diners like the one on Phillips Avenue have been a quintessential part of America’s dining landscape, especially in the boroughs of New York during the ‘30s and ‘40s.  Here, denizens of New York could find an affordable meal during the Great Depression and World War II. 

The silver Airstream trailer that is the Diner wasn’t always on the corner of Phillips and 10th.  When it first arrived in town, it was called the Market Diner and you could find out on Louise Ave where Johnny Carino’s is now located.  After a few name changes, it was decided to move the building downtown.  Although it might have been a crazy idea at the time, I’m pretty sure that was the best decision and a downtown landmark was born. 

The ideal dining group size is 2-4 persons, and although there are a few tables that will seat 6, be ready for a wait because they don’t take reservations (according to FourSquare).  The booths are comfy, and overall the place is clean.  What I appreciate about the interior décor is the level of restraint.  Unlike the distgustingly distracting walls of a 1990s TGI Friday’s or Chili’s, which sagged with the weight of a picker’s paradise, the Diner pulls off a minimalist display of era specific advertising and memorabilia.

The Players (menu)

You too can find an affordable pre-show dining experience at the Phillips Avenue Diner.  The entire menu hovers around the $8-$12 price point. That is unless you want to add one of their signature malts or shakes to your meal, and I highly recommend that you do, but we’ll get to that in a little bit.

All the diner classics are here, including: an all-day breakfast option, soups, salads (for those who prefer a clean fork to a greasy spoon), reubens and melts, cold salad sandwiches (chicken, egg & tuna), noodle bowls galore, delicious hot sandwiches, and burgers with an assortment of creative costume changes. 

I suggest the pot roast dip sandwich, served on grilled sourdough and slathered with a creamy horseradish, which has a uniquely tolerable amount of bitterness, not unlike Sonja Niles’ take on Grandma Kurnitz in SECT’s Yonkers.  Add on the grilled onions and mushrooms and you’ve got a nice challenger for the Benjamin Franklin sammy found next door at Pappy’s, whose Pot Roast/Havarti/Caramelized Onion and Truffle Oil Mayo on a soft multi-grain Kaiser is a must try for downtown lunch goers. 

The Diner also has wine and beer to get you sufficiently lubricated for a night at the theatre.  Hint: Actors like a house of patrons who’ve had just enough to drink so as to laugh out loud at the funny parts. 

The Star

I would suggest that a meal at the Diner isn’t complete without a signature shake, old-fashioned malt, or favorite float.  This month’s Valentine special is a Red Velvet Cheesecake shake.  Or try one of their whimsically named mainstays like the “Salty Dog” with caramel, sea salt and beer nuts.  My daughters favorite is the “Chocomint Crunch”, which blends chocolate and mint together with crushed Oreos® to create the right balance of sweat creaminess and grit to match DJ Steckelberg’s portrayal of Uncle Louie in Yonkers

Open to 10pm on Friday and Saturday, you might be able to sneak by the Diner after a show and grab one of their delicious shakes for the ride home. 

REVIEW: Lost in Yonkers Lands!

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For the last few years, Sioux Empire Community Theatre has progressively improved in its quality of productions, changing for the better what we’ve come to expect from community theatre companies. Their production of Neil Simon’s Lost In Yonkers continues this trend impressively.

Neil Simon tells a story of two young brothers, Jay and Arty, who are left with their domineering grandmother while their father takes a traveling job to pay off debt. While their mother was alive, the boys had not been close to their father’s side of the family. Now stranded among them, the brothers come to know to their developmentally disabled Aunt Bella, their charmingly deceitful Uncle Louie, their distressed Aunt Gert, and of course their larger-than-life Grandma Kurnitz. The show features a broad array of emotions and perspectives. The audience may laugh and cry.  The characters are genuine and evoke empathy – even the ones who are harmful.

Director Jim Leyse is an intriguing combination of a deep, contemplative mind and an ever-present sweet sense of humor, which makes him a perfect fit to bring a Neil Simon play like Lost In Yonkers to life. He was able to pull together a cohesive cast who could pass for their ages and relation to each other, then make them live naturally on the set.  His eye for talent formed a perfect ensemble

Young actors Blake Anderson (Jay) and Aaron Conrdron (Arty) were nice choices for the brothers. Neil Simon gifted them with some great lines that made them the sweethearts of the production. The two carried themselves with ease – more than I might expect of young men with such a line burden and stage time. I appreciated how Jay Wickre (Eddie) and Sue Martens (Aunt Gert) owned their smaller roles and still managed to standout. DJ Steckelberg (Uncle Louie) portrayed a New York bruiser with just the right balance of toughness for the streets and tenderness for his family. Lesser actors would have played Louie full throttle, but DJ was able to dynamically portray an angry man with something brewing just beneath the surface. Sonja Niles played Grandma Kurnitz with the sternness you would expect by reading the script. Her physicality was believable. Hers was a difficult role – in other plays, the villain isn’t railed against throughout the production by the people they’ve hurt. Sonja handled that challenge well by delivering hurtful dialogue in a way we kind of approve of.

Molly Leyse (Bella) is a veteran of the Sioux Falls community theatre scene.  I have seen Molly perform many different characters, but for the first time I felt she completely transformed herself for this role. At times I felt like I would like to have seen Bella less like a five year old, but that’s probably a personal preference and nitpicking an otherwise brilliant performance.  Molly Leyse earns this role every second she’s on the stage, and she does it exceptionally well.

The scenes were connected with Jay Wickre’s recorded voice, as he read aloud letters Eddie wrote to his sons. Jay’s voice-over delivery played a bit for the laugh, which contrasted with the rest of the cast with its lack of nuance. The entire cast was caught in an unfortunate trap with New York dialects; some actors were spot on, some were muddled, and some didn’t have a dialect at all. That’s a difficult situation for actors in community theatre, who each may have varying abilities to master dialects. You can’t not do dialects if they are placed in such a distinctive city, so the cast did what they could.  

All of these performances were supported by Benjamin Kramer’s set design.  It is striking, but at times a bit cumbersome for the Orpheum’s limited stage. It had some troubling attributes, like a door perpendicular to the audience and richly-constructed columns in the middle of the rooms which seemed unnecessary. The layout of the apartment was confusing, with the kitchen on the other side of an upstage external building. The set was in a loft over an ice cream store, but it appeared to be in a high rise apartment. However, it was dressed very well to fit the heavy mood of the apartment’s main occupant. Nick Rokahr’s lighting design was able to get around the set with multiple angles and cues. Paint Charge Sara Nadenicek has crafted a number of recent sets, but none so artistically as Lost In Yonkers. She executed Kramer’s design and created a perfectly detailed piece of art on stage, from the downstage floors to the buildings in the background.*

Samanda Nunnery’s costume design was the most diverse, interesting, tailored, and accurate period dress in any SECT performance I’ve ever seen. I’m sure other local theatre companies hope this fourth-year college student sticks around after graduation to make their productions look this good.

Sioux Falls needs to experience this show. I have never seen a faster standing ovation from an audience, so trust in their experience – this show lands, and you have one more weekend to catch it.  

Sioux Empire Community Theatre’s Lost in Yonkers runs February 12 – 21, 2016. Fri. & Sat. at 7 p.m. & Sun. at 2 p.m.

Edit:  *This sentence originally read “She created a perfectly detailed piece of art on stage, from the downstage floors to the buildings in the background.”